Stephen M. Walt

Some sober reading for Memorial Day

If you’re relaxing on Memorial Day and reflecting on the sacrifices that some of our fellow citizens have made to advance the common good, I have three suggestions for things to read.   All are drawn from the Sunday New York Times, and together they paint a worrisome portrait of the challenges we face as a ...

If you’re relaxing on Memorial Day and reflecting on the sacrifices that some of our fellow citizens have made to advance the common good, I have three suggestions for things to read.   All are drawn from the Sunday New York Times, and together they paint a worrisome portrait of the challenges we face as a nation.

The first article, appropriately, is a portrait of several soldiers from the 1st battalion, 87th infantry and the challenges they face as they return from Afghanistan. Several have been wounded, one has seen his marriage dissolve, all of them face an array of medical problems or personal obstacles, and none seem to have bright prospects once they return. Together, their stories remind us that most of the people who have been fighting these wars aren’t members of a privileged elite; quite the contrary, in fact.  

The second article, by Gretchen Morgenson, summarizes a recent paper by Joseph Gagnon and Marc Hinterschweiger of the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Here the subject isn’t the human cost of war; it is the economic consequences of a decade or more of American profligacy. The basic story is that our society has lived well beyond its means, and we will face a rising mountain of public debt — in the best case rising to more than 150 percent of GDP by 2035 — unless we "design a long-term plan to reduce fiscal deficits in the future." Gagnon and Hinterschweiger believe there is still time to ward off this gloomy scenario, but only political leaders are willing to make hard choices about entitlements, tax rates, and other forms of government spending (including defense).  

And the third article is Robert Reich’s review of a new book on the financial crisis: Reckless Endangerment, also by Gretchen Morgenson (the same) and Joshua Rosner. The book (which I have downloaded this but not yet read) is a portrait of some of the key individuals who helped create the environment in which the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown occurred. Here’s the paragraph (by Reich), that caught my eye:

The real problem, which the authors only hint at, is that Washington and the financial sector have become so tightly intertwined that public accountability has all but vanished. The revolving door described in "Reckless Endangerment" is but one symptom. The extraordinary wealth of America’s financial class also elicits boundless cooperation from politicians who depend on it for campaign contributions and from a fawning business press, as well as a stream of honors from universities, prestigious charities and think tanks eager to reward their generosity. In this symbiotic world, conflicts of interest are easily hidden, appearances of conflicts taken for granted and abuses of public trust for personal gain readily dismissed."

Reich is quite familiar with this world, having famously been a "Friend of Bill (Clinton)" from the latter’s Oxford days, as well as faculty member at Harvard and Secretary of Labor in Clinton’s first term.  As someone who has been lucky enough to teach at prestigious universities, I’ve some experience with these interconnected webs of influence myself, though hardly at the highest reaches, and Reich’s summary here rings true to me.

Put the three pieces together, and it makes somber reading for Memorial Day. For they remind us that the people who have engineered our biggest failings in recent decades — including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-have largely escaped any of the consequences. Similarly, most of the people whose mistakes led to the financial meltdown have retained their wealth, status, and political power. And as we spend the next couple of decades  digging ourselves out from these various messes (assuming that our sclerotic political system actually manages to make do something effective), it’s ordinary Americans who will pay the biggest price. As usual.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola